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Isolationism in World War II

Scott Merriman, Mark Pearcy
  • Author
    Scott Merriman

    Scott Merriman has taught history for over 25 years. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and has written over a dozen books for presses like ABC-CLIO and Praeger.

  • Instructor
    Mark Pearcy

    Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

Learn the definition of isolationism. See examples of countries that have used isolationist foreign policy and the impacts of isolationism during WWII. Updated: 09/17/2021

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Isolationism definition

Isolationism means to cut one's self off from the rest of the world as a nation. Sometimes the isolation was for a certain time period, like during a war, although it was sometimes for a period of decades or centuries and that isolation generally continued until the nation in question was forced open.

Examples of isolationism

Many different countries have cut themselves off from the world at different times. Some did because they felt that it was best to develop away from the world. Others did so because they felt that the world had very little to offer. One example of isolationism is China. China cut itself off from the world in the fifteenth century and generally tried to stay isolated from that point forward. While China had sent out huge expeditions in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, no more expeditions sailed later on. Attempts to encourage trade from Europeans was met with resistance. China tried very hard to cut off its interactions with other countries, and made trade with them illegal. Part of this was due to a belief that China was better than the rest of the world. China maintained that isolation until the 19th century, when Britain forced its way into China. China did not regain full control of its own affairs under a unified government until the 1950s.

Japan is another example of a country that isolated itself. Japan in the late 16th and early 17th century forced out Christianity and removed most of the influence from Europe. The only ones allowed to remain were a few Dutch travelers and they were forced onto one island. The Dutch also had to promise not to send missionaries. Thus, the Dutch were only interested in trade and the influence was limited. The Japanese imposed this isolation because of fear of foreign invasion and influence. The nation of Japan remained mostly isolated until the later 18th century and then started to import material. The Japanese knew that they were behind but needed a spark for change. The United States (US), under naval commander Commodore Matthew Perry, forced their hand and Japan opened, ending their isolation.

European countries have also been isolationist. One prime example of this is Switzerland, which has been a neutral country during most of Europe's wars for the last few centuries. As a matter of fact, the last major war (outside of Switzerland) that the Swiss have been involved in was the Napoleonic Wars, and then they were invaded. The last wars that Switzerland was involved in occurred before the Reformation of the 16th Century, and Switzerland has had a policy of armed neutrality ever since. One sign of this is that the Swiss were even reluctant to join the United Nations, not joining it until 2002. Even after joining the UN, most Swiss thought that they were still fully neutral and that UN membership did not change this. The Swiss were somewhat unique in that they had a formal popular vote on the issue both in 2002 and early in 1986, when the result had been to oppose joining the UN.

United Nations Building

United Nations building

The Swiss also were fully neutral during World War II, interning Allied airmen who wound up there or who bailed out over there (many airmen thought it was better to be a Prisoner of War (POW) in Switzerland than Italy or France if they thought they would not make it back to the Allied airbase). Switzerland has participated in some international efforts, particularly some aiming for philanthropic development, but the Swiss have largely aimed to stay neutral.

There were also examples of nations being isolationist by acting on their own rather than being isolationist in staying away from the world. The best known example of this is the state of Great Britain in the late 1800s. Great Britain was clearly involved in the world as this was the era of imperialism and Great Britain had colonies stretching from Egypt to South Africa in Africa and throughout the globe. Great Britain, though, aimed to act on its own rather than allying with either France or Germany, the two leading powers of the world in that day. Great Britain did not ally with Germany, seeing as how it aimed to be the top power in the world. France was allied with Russia, and Russia threatened the British pipeline of colonies that lead from Egypt to India.

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  • 0:00 Isolationism: A Policy…
  • 0:53 What Is Isolationism?
  • 2:11 Examples of Isolationism
  • 7:10 Modern Isolationism
  • 7:50 Lesson Summary
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Frequently Asked Questions

Why did the US end its isolationism during WWII?

The US started to end its isolationism when Hitler started to overrun Europe in 1940. However, the US did not fully end its isolationism until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Why did the United States return to isolationism?

The US returned to isolationism in the early 1930s as the US thought that they had been tricked into World War I and that World War I had not been the "war to end all wars" that had been promised.

What is isolationism?

Isolationism means to cut yourself off somewhat from foreign affairs and at the very least promise to stay neutral if war breaks out.

What is an example of isolationism?

As example of isolationism was when Switzerland stayed neutral and did not get involved in World War I and World War II.

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